Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mythology in everyday language

- by Janaki Krishnan
Last week, I visited my friend Nirupama in Dadar. It was 10:00 in the morning. "Where is your son?", I asked her. "Oh, that Kumbhakarna? He's still asleep", she said in Marathi. We both laughed. She was referring to the demon Kumbhakarna who slept for 6 months in a year, and could only be woken up with loud drumbeats and trumpets.

As I walked home, I thought about how Indian languages, even in common usage, are rich in mythology, and how a single mythological reference easily conveys a wealth of meaning.

I remember my grandmother, who was laid down by cancer in her later years, referring to my mother as Bhoomadevi - Mother Earth, for all the burdens she shouldered so patiently.

A short-tempered neighbour, known for his loud outbursts, earned the name Narasimha - Man-Lion. As kids, we used to be very amused, imagining him as Narasimha, the fearsome form of Vishnu, half-man, half-lion. Just as Narasimha refused to calm down even after destroying the demon Hiranyakashipu, our neighbour refused to be quiet even when his entire household had beaten a thorough retreat.

With a mythology as rich as ours, there is no end to amusing metaphors. Take for example, my food-loving cousin. Whenever he visited someone, he would always check with the lady of the house whether anything good was being served that day. Naturally, the elders often said to him "Don't be such a Bakasura!".

Similarly, I have heard wily women being referred to as Manthara, and short men as Vamana or Agastya. And of course, scheming men are universally described as Shakuni.

In modern times, these rich metaphors have taken on interesting shapes. Indian languages have begun to reflect more recent personalities and characters.

My colleague Deshpande was known for his truthfulness. "Oh, that man? He is such a Gandhi!" is how people described him. The tone would be sarcastic or humorous, and usually hinted that although Deshpande's integrity was high, he was somewhat out of touch with reality.

I have also heard households where the woman's voice is supreme being described as under 'Indira Gandhi Raj'. I'm sure, in a few years, 'Sonia-ji' will come to mean a woman who wields the real power from behind the scene!

Perhaps I should compile a new dictionary with all these fascinating metaphors, old and new. What do you say?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

One year of dance lessons

- by Deepa Krishnan

Today is Vijayadashami, the tenth day of the Dassera festival. This is the day on which every dancer seeks the blessings of his or her guru.
It is also traditionally the day on which new dancers are initiated into the art.

I began dance lessons last Vijayadashami, so it has now been a year of learning. I learnt dance as a child; therefore this is not entirely new to me...but in some ways it is harder, because I have to unlearn some of the earlier habits.

In the past year, I'v
e struggled with getting back into the rhythms and postures of classical dance. But the body is an amazing thing - when you push it, it responds. I can see myself improving, day by day. Now if only I could practice more regularly!

Here are some photos from today's Vijayadashami celebratio
ns. When I got to the venue, one of the senior dancers was just beginning to draw kolam at the doorstep.

She looked like she needed help, so I sat down to assist.

The pattern we drew is a traditional Tamil kolam. You start with a square (see the central one with four connecting lines?) and then you draw the extensions.

These were the tools we used:
- powdered red clay, to create the base
- white Cherry Blossom shoe shine, instead of the traditional rice powder or paste
- chalk to try out designs
- paint brushes, instead of using our hands the traditional way

The final design was not just beautiful and welcoming, but also auspicious. (We were pretty pleased with our efforts, even if we did cheat). For all you purists out there, if you want to see this sort of kolam done the traditional way, then here is a good link.

After the kolam, we went inside and joined the rest of the audience. Eventually, the hall filled up, with students and their parents. Here is one section of the hall. The girls in the front row were new, just starting their lesson today. Older girls distributed flowers, for the ritual offering to Lord Shiva that would mark the beginning of the event.

Here is my guru, Jayashree Rajagopalan, in a beautiful orange and green sari. She spoke to the parents about the Natya Shastra, the world's oldest codified treatise on the performing arts. The Natya Shastra is the root source of India's classical and folk dance forms.

The first part of the program was, of course, a prayer to the Great God Shiva, in his form as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. We offered flowers, bowed to him, and then began the performance.

I made several errors, Nataraja's grace notwithstanding. The guru was kind to me, offering encouraging words, and helping me get over the mortification.

(I still wince when I think about it. Aaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgh. I'll do better next year. I promise!)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Starting a conversation

- By Janaki Krishnan
Perhaps it is the frequent weather changes in the UK that make the Englishman begin a conversation with remarks about the weather. Indians with their diverse customs and climate have different ways of starting conversations.

In fertile Kerala, the southernmost state, people tend to begin conversations with remarks about the activity involved at that moment. For example, if you're bathing in the river, and someone stops to chat with you, the conversation begins with 'Kulikyya?' (Bathing, eh?). Or if you're resting, then it's 'Kidukkua?' (Resting, are you?).

In North India, even before starting a conversation, people touch the feet of their elders saying 'Pai laagoo' (Hindi) or 'Pairi pauna' (Punjabi). This greeting literally means 'I fall at your feet', and is a way of showing respect to older people. The usual response is an affectionate blessing - 'Jeete Raho, beta' - may you live long, child.

India has many ways of saying even the common 'How are you?'. In Gujarat it is 'Kem chho'. The Maharashtrians say 'Kasa kai', the Bengalis 'Kaimon aache' and the Tamilians 'Eppudi irrukenga'. It is impossible to list greetings of all communities. With 22 official scheduled languages, and 415 other living languages, India has among the most diverse spoken cultures in the world.

Often, greetings involve the names of Gods. In Maharashtra, the standard greeting in villages is 'Ram Ram' - referring to the God Rama, hero of the epic Ramayana. If you meet someone of a higher status, you add 'Saheb' to it, to acknowledge the difference in status - Ram Ram Saheb.

Muslims in India, in general, use 'Salaam aaleikum' - Peace be upon you. Many Hindu religious organisations have evolved greetings of their own. If you call the ISKON temple, you'll be greeted on the phone not with a 'Hello' but with a 'Hare Krishna'. The Chinmaya Trust uses 'Hari Om', and devotees of Sai Baba say 'Sairam' as a form of greeting.

And so it goes on. The manner in which a person starts a conversation provides clues to the identity of the person. In a diverse country like India, this can be quite useful!

Mumbai, of course, has it's own style. The busy Mumbaite, rushing to catch a local train, has learnt how to begin and end the conversation at the same time - 'Hi yaar, how are you, chal, see you!'

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


- By Deepa Krishnan

Anyone who has travelled to India will tell you that we're very fond of perfume. Flowery perfume, that is. We strew flowers on our marriage beds. Women wear flowers in their hair. We offer flowers to our gods. Roses are a great favourite - we sprinkle rose-water on guests at weddings.

Among the most popular flower-perfumes is kewra. I've often seen little bottles of kewra essence in the Muslim shops on Mohammed Ali Road. But until recently, I didn't know where the perfume came from.

Last month, I was walking through Bhuleshwar, when we spotted a flower-seller's basket.

"What are these?" I asked the flower-seller, pointing to the long spiny leaves.

"Kewda", she said. "Here, see how nice it smells."

Inside the closed pod, there was the white kewra flower; it is called ketaki in Sanskrit. The smell was sweet, but faint. Perhaps I'd have to open the pod to release the scent.

"Do you want to buy it?" she asked. "Ten rupees for one."

"What do I do with it?", I asked.

"Offer it to Ganesh-ji" she said. Apparently, the Elephant God likes this stuff. His father Shiva used to like the ketaki too, until one day, the flower earned his wrath by bearing false witness. Do you know the story of how the ketaki flower fell from grace?

I decided against buying. Whether the Gods like the ketaki or not, I don't. The smell is too flowery, too intense for me, although it is a scent associated with romance.

Here is a love-poem compiled in the 11th century by Vidyakara, a Buddhist monk. It's about a rainy night, and the flowering of the ketaki:

A cloth of darkness inlaid with fireflies;
flashes of lightning;
the thunder hints at a mighty cloudmass.
A trumpeting of elephants;
an east wind scented by opening buds of ketaki,
and falling rain:
I know not how a man can bear nights such as these,
when separated from his love.

Put like that, it does sound appealing, doesn't it?

Next time you want to try something romantic on a rainy night, go buy a kewra incense stick. Perhaps the magic of the ketaki will work for you.

P.S. If you're looking for the English name for this plant, it's screw pine. Pandanus something or the other. They use it in Malay and Thai and Indonesian cooking.

P. P.S. Hey Cristy, thanks for the photos!
(Published in the Hindustan Times, HT Cafe City Beat, City Culture - Aug 16, 2008)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Naming Syndrome

- by Janaki Krishnan

There is one sphere in Indian society that has undergone tremendous changes in my lifetime - the naming of the first-born.

In days bygone, among Hindu Brahmins from the South, naming or 'naamakaranam' was just a religious formality. A priest would be called, blessings invoked, and the name of the child would be whispered thrice into the child's ear. But there was no effort spent in choosing the child's name. No long lists were pored over, and no advice was sought from friends. By convention, the first born child got the name of the father's parents.

If it was a boy, he would be called exactly the same first name as his paternal grandfather, and if it was a girl, then she'd be named after her paternal grandmother.

The trouble was, in a joint family, the child could not be called by his first name, because it was also the grandparent's name. It would be too disrespectful! How do you scold a boy whose name is the same as your father's? Naturally, 'Subramanian' began to be called Mani, while 'Venkataraman' and 'Ramachandran ' were shortened to Ramu and Chandru.

Sometimes, there were added complications. The first-born sons of two brothers would both be named after their paternal grandfather. How do you manage two rascally cousins, growing up together in the same house, with the same name? This problem was solved by adding funny prefixes to names. My grandfather was called Mottai (Baldie) because his father never allowed him to grow his hair, while his cousin proudly flaunted a thick tuft at the back of his head.

Most names were derived from the names of Gods. It was believed that on your deathbed, if you had the Lord's name (also your son's) on your lips, your place in heaven was assured.

The second born child was named after maternal grandparents, reflecting India's patriarchal society. With no family planning, names had also to be found for an ever-increasing brood of children. For the third, fourth and so on, there were no prescribed rules. Usually they were named after the kula-devata (the family deity), or after specific gods and goddesses based on promises made to that god during domestic crisises.

As India's freedom movement gained momentum, people expressed their support by naming children Subash and Lakshmi. When India attained freedom, Bharat and Bharati became hot favourites. When the Second World War ended with victory for the Allies, my own sister was named Vijaya, for Victory.

Then in the post-independence era came our celluloid heroes. Every house had a Rajesh, an Anand, or a Dilip. Although the movie-star craze still continues, our cricket champions are their competitors. There are hundreds of Sachin's all over India.

In modern times, with intercaste marriages and nuclear families, couples have a wider choice in naming their projeny. They choose from books and lists, and from the Internet. Persian names are increasingly becoming popular. And once the first born is named, the second child's name is selected so that it either starts with the same alphabet, or rhymes or sounds pleasing when both names are said together. Ashan-Ahan. Deepa-Roopa. Akash-Aditya. Many Punjabi families pick names that have a Westernised feel to them - Bunty, Pinky, Babli and Sweetie, for example.

From an era where ancestral names were simply reused, naming has now become an art, a reflection of personal taste.